To translate the untranslatable- Finnegans Wake by James Joyce

My feelings to James Joyce are as ambivalent as feelings can be. I admire and hate him at the same time. I always thought that reading is supposed to be pleasure and a book to bring this pleasure should be well balanced between form and content. I imagine that a literary critic would say that the form can also be the content but I would like to leave these dilemmas aside for a moment and focus on my Joyce-reading experience.

While Dubliners (1914) occurred to me as a perfectly balanced masterpiece, Ulysses (1922) and especially Finnegans Wake (1939)  gave me the impression that Joyce went too far. After publication of Ulysses it seemed that his radicalism in linguistic experiments cannot go any further but in 1939 with Finnegans Wake he crossed another borders. He created a BOOK regarded by some as literary metaphor of humankind and as gibberish by others. Nevertheless, the translation of it appeared a rather impossible task irrespectively of one’s attitude towards it. However, there were several “daredevils” who apparently succeeded in it; Finnegans Wake has been translated into, for instance, French, Dutch, German or Japanese.

The cover of the  Polish translation

The cover of the Polish translation

Krzysztof Bartnicki, a Polish translator, joined this elite group this year. Since he spent over ten (very long) years of his life (1998-2008/2009) working on the translation, it is not surprising that he calls it “the beast”. What is interesting, however, is his disappointment with Joyce’s work. In many interviews Bartnicki underlines that before he started the translation process he considered Finnegans Wake as a complete masterpiece, a holistic literary depiction of humankind, mythology and history of languages. Surprisingly, after ten years of struggle not only with the text itself but also with hundreds of its interpretations, he reached rather dispiriting conclusion that Joyce under the cover of linguistic riddles wanted to hide his sexual preferences.  He admits he felt so tricked by Joyce that  in order to “punish” the author he wanted to leave the book unpublished. Fortunately, he did not.

I personally think that Joyce definitely owes something to Mr Bartnicki as he is the first human being who, by his daring translation, encouraged me to return to this painful experience of reading Finnegans Wake

The Polish version- Finneganow Tren


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